Bad Advice From Yoda?

I shouldn't write this article. I'm going to anyway.


Yoda and Darth Vader are the most quoted characters from "Star Wars". I think Yoda is probably quoted a bit more. His most famous line is "Do or do not. There is no try." I'm proposing that the way most people use it is bad.

By itself "Do or do not. There is no try." is just wrong. There is trying. When a child is learning how to stand they don't "Do or do not. There is no try." Rather, they try and try and try. Without the trying there can't be the doing. The statement by itself doesn't incorporate time. It takes time to learn. So, the statement eliminates the ability to learn. If there is no room for failure then there is no room for improvement.

The key here is that the advice is taken out of context. Let's look at what was really happening when Yoda said this. Many of Yoda's most famous quotes come from this scene in "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back".

- - - - - - -

[Luke sees his X-wing is about to sink into the bog]
Luke: Oh, no! We'll never get it out now!
Yoda: So certain, are you? Always with you, what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing, but this is... totally different!
Yoda: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Luke: All right, I'll give it a try.
Yoda: No! Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try.
[Luke tries to use the Force to levitate his X-Wing out of the bog, but fails in his attempt.]
Luke: I can't. It's too big.
Yoda: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
Luke: You want the impossible. [sees Yoda use the Force to levitate the X-wing out of the bog and gets flustered when he does it] I don't... I don't believe it!
Yoda: That is why you fail.

- - - - - - -

You can see that the situation calls for commitment. There is a limited time, limited opportunity. The ship is sinking. This is a situation where you won't get very many tries. So, Yoda gives the appropriate advice. Now is not the time for half-hearted attempts. Now is the time to go for it, give it all you've got. Either it works or it doesn't. Because then the moment will have passed.

In other situations Yoda is all about trying. Fail and fail and fail until you succeed. That is part of Yoda's training program. But, when the do or die situation presents itself there is no advantage in holding back. Then it is "Do or do not. There is no try.", but that's the only situation where it applies.

The psychologist Gordon Allport has a great line where he says that with commitment you can be half-sure and whole-hearted at the same time. I want to get better at that myself.

One of the greatest psychologists of child learning is Carol Dweck. She has said that her entire career of research can be boiled down to two things, finding what a child is interested in and encouraging them to try hard at it. Not be good at it, to try hard at it. That's the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset.

A teacher giving you the right piece of information at the right time is a huge advantage in learning. There is the knowledge that a learner can learn on their own right now. There is the knowledge that the learner can't learn no matter what happens right now. Between those two there is a space. That's the knowledge that the learner can learn with the help of a teacher. Lev Vygotsky called these people More Knowing Others (MKO). This space is the Zone of Proximal Development. It's important to remember that all of this happens in a specific context.

The three greatest rock climbing documentaries of all time are "Free Solo", "The Dawn Wall", and "Meru". Each of these are a great example of when "Do or do not. There is no try." applies, and when it does not. "Free Solo" is the most obvious example. Doing a free solo climb means that there is no equipment. If you fall, you die. Don't fall, don't die. Pretty simple, but intense. Alex Honnold is currently the best free soloer in the world.

When Alex is doing the free solo it is do or do not, there is no "trying." The practicing has been done before. Many, many times over years and years he has climbed this same route with ropes and equipment. He failed many times on those attempts. He tried and failed, and tried again. Trying is the path to learning. But, in the free solo attempt trying doesn't count, only the doing.

I think I've made the case that Yoda's advice can be good in the right situation, where you're calling for commitment, but in any type of learning situation it is detrimental to learning rather than helpful. Notice that the actual situation in "The Empire Strikes Back" could be considered a learning situation since Yoda can pull out the ship anytime he wants. Now, we have to question Yoda's competence in teaching.

Yoda: alive for 900 years. Have good grammar, still doesn't.

Yoda was alive for 900 years. He was a trainer for 800 years. He trained many of the masters who trained other people. These are the lines that eventually turned to the dark side. Isn't that at least partly Yoda's responsibility? Yoda was the Grand Master of the Jedi while the Clone Army was built and didn't know it. He was in charge while the Jedi numbers decreased to the point where there were only a few Jedi left. He was in command when the war started, and when they lost the war. Isn't all of that kind of his responsibility? I've never heard anyone bring that up, but it seems like a good question.

I get why people like Yoda. He's the wise old warrior monk archetype. George Lucas consciously used the idea of the monomyth from Joseph Campbell, which says that stories follow the same basic pattern. Campbell studied Carl Jung, who originated the modern idea of archetypes, which are mental models that have been so useful for so long that they are built into the biology of humans. For instance, the wise old teacher and the warrior monk, even better when combined.

Yoda reminds me of the Dalai Lama. They both seem to project the image of an archetype very well, but they seem to lack some of the substance. The Dalai Lama has that same old wise teacher archetype going on. He also projects the image of an exiled benevolent king. Most people think he's peaceful and tolerant, but that's not what you find when you start thinking about it.

Cesare Beccaria originated modern criminal law. He has a great quote that applies here. "It is opinion, that tormentor of the wise and the ignorant, that has exalted the appearance of virtue above virtue itself."

First, let's address the idea that Buddhism is peaceful. The Buddha was peaceful and told others to be peaceful. Many Buddhists follow that advice, many don't. The Japanese Buddhists seem to be the most honest throughout history about not being peaceful. In WW2 there were Kamikaze pilots that were Buddhists. Good quotes abound throughout Japanese Buddhist history.

This is a slogan from a Buddhist temple in Osaka: "The mercy of Buddha should be recompensed even by pounding flesh to pieces. One's obligation to the Teacher should be recompensed even by smashing bones to bits!"

And one from Japanese Buddhist leader Harada Daiun Sogaku during WW2: "[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way]."

There are a lot of other things that demonstrate this same basic point. For instance, one of the genocides being carried out in the world right now is the killing off of the Muslim Rohingya people in Burma/Myanmar. The Buddhists obviously deny this, but it seems to be quite true. I'm not there and I'm not going to research it enough to have very strong opinions on either side, but I get the idea of protecting borders. That's why borders exist. If you have a culture with certain values, and people with different values that will destroy your values want in, then you are literally destroying your values by letting them in. For instance, if you value freedom so you open your borders and let in a bunch of people that don't value freedom then once they have enough power and influence they will just close the borders and implement other reforms that limit freedom. In that case, which happens often, your value of freedom destroyed freedom. Helping a few people in the short term and hurting many people in the long term.

(All of this type of stuff makes you question if Buddha would be a Buddhist today. I don't think so. He would probably be highly insulting of religions just like he was when he was alive. You get the same thing in most religions, ideologies, and movements in general. Would Jesus be a Christian? I think not, he would be a reforming Jew just like before. Even if he was a Christian, which of the 34,000 denominations would he choose? I doubt a single one of them would work for him. It should also be noted that many Buddhists are against these violent forms of Buddhism, but it is popular.)

It's highly debatable whether Tibet was worse for human beings under the rule of the Dalai Lama or since China took over. In traditional Tibet almost everyone was a serf with a lord that they answered to and worked the land for. Kind of like traditional feudalism, with the head of the state and the head of the church being the same person and the church being given priority over secular organizations. Most punishments were some form of beating and mutilation. Technically, Tibet outlawed mutilation quite early in history, and outlawed capital punishment long before France and Britain. But, it doesn't seem that they really implemented that law. Mutilation worked so they stayed with it. There are memoirs from people that were in the Dalai Lama's private dance troupe that you don't want to read unless you like reading about people being abused, and protected by religious officials in exchange for more abuse. The true projection of peace, love, tranquility, and tolerance. (The other alternative is to say that the Dalai Lama was completely clueless about everything in his own country, and even his immediate surroundings including the people that he interacted with on a daily basis.)

The Dalai Lama is a reincarnated god, so he can basically do anything he wants. It's hard to fight against a god, especially if he has a lot of resources that include an army. If you can't leave where you live because your lord will send people out to catch you and then they'll cut your hamstring so you can't run away again, are you a slave? Apparently not, you're a well treated and happy serf.

The Dalai Lama reminds me of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. The main difference is that the Dalai Lama is reincarnated in different bodies, not by heredity. It's kind of like spiritual heredity. The rest of the nobility works by traditional heredity.

Sometimes things are as they appear, sometimes they are not. This brings me back to Yoda. If his advice is used in the right context then I think it can be good. But, since it's usually used in the wrong context and puts emphasis on winning the moment at the potential sacrifice of the future rather than on learning in the moment to develop greater ability for the future, it's a dangerous piece of advice to become attached to. We must look deeper than the outward appearance of an archetype.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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